Sunday, April 1, 2018

From Religion to Relationship

Someone has said that the difference between religion and relationship is about eighteen inches, which is the approximate distance between your head and your heart. Certainly it's not enough to have religion or be religious. You need to have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, in which you repent of your sins, and ask for His forgiveness, trusting Him to save you through His finished work on the cross, and believing that God raised Him from the dead. From that point onward, you no longer live for yourself but for for Him who died for you.

Yet some people who merely have religion without a relationship with the Lord may still be passionate and sincere, and their hearts may be zealous for what they believe. They may be very devout and even fanatical about their beliefs. But they don't know the Lord and have never received the free gift of salvation. They have never been saved by grace through faith.  They don't have the love of God in their hearts.

During the time of Christ there were certain religious parties among the Jews, such as the Pharisees and the Sadducees. While those who belonged to those parties may have had deeply held beliefs, they did not know the Lord. But some of them came to know Jesus, and these are the ones I would like to highlight today. I'd like to discuss three of them who became followers of Christ, which is from a Greek word that means Messiah or Anointed One.

Joseph of Arimathea
Joseph of Arimathea
The first one I would like to mentioned is Joseph of Arimathea, who was a member of the ruling religious council, known as the Sanhedrin. After the crucifixion of Christ, he went to Pilate to ask for Jesus' body. "Joseph of Arimathea came, a prominent member of the Council, who himself was waiting for the kingdom of God; and he gathered up courage and went in before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus." (Mar 15:43).

It took a lot of courage to go to Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus. For Pilate had just sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion before an angry mob that demanded he be put to death. It was not popular to be a disciple of Christ, even during the time when Jesus was alive. Scripture says, "Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue." (Jn 12:42, NIV).

Once Pilate confirmed that Jesus was indeed dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then "Joseph bought a linen cloth, took Him down, wrapped Him in the linen cloth and laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb." (Mar 15:46).

The apostle John recorded that he was secretly a disciple of Christ. "After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body." (Joh 19:38).

Just as when Mary had poured the expensive perfume on Jesus, and He acknowledged it as a beautiful thing she did to prepare Him for burial, likewise, when Joseph took the body of Jesus and placed it in a tomb, this also was a beautiful thing.

"So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there." (Joh 19:40-42)

We know that Joseph was wealthy, for Matthew states: "When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus." (Mat 27:57). He obviously loved Jesus more than his money.

Not only did he see to the burial of Jesus' body, he placed Him in his own, new tomb. "This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away." (Mat 27:58-60). Joseph was one who went from merely having religion to having a relationship with Jesus.

Jesus speaking with Nicodemus
Then there was Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to visit Jesus at night to ask him questions. The apostle John wrote in his gospel:

"Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, 'Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.'" (Joh 3:1-2)

It's apparent from his comment to Jesus that He was very close to the kingdom of God. 

"Jesus answered and said to him, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.' Nicodemus said to Him, 'How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?' Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, "You must be born again." The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.'" (Joh 3:3-8)

While he believed that Jesus had come from God and that God was with Him, enabling Him to perform signs and wonders, we don't know if he had yet been born again or had a personal relationship with the Lord. The Lord told him that one must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God. One thing is for sure that he was seeking the Lord and that he eventually became a disciple of Christ.

Although he was a member of the Sanhedrin, he was openly supportive of Jesus in the midst of the council, during a time when they were trying to arrest Him. "Nicodemus (he who came to Him before, being one of them) said to them, 'Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?' They answered him, 'You are not also from Galilee, are you? Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.'" (Joh 7:50-52). Although he took flack from the council for what he said in Christ's defense, it didn't stop him from following the Lord.

After the crucifixion, it was Nicodemus who accompanied Joseph of Arimathea in taking the body of Christ down from the cross and placing it in the tomb. "Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight." (Joh 19:39).

So just like his fellow council member Joseph of Arimathea, he was a disciple of Christ and lived his faith out loud. He boldly stepped out of his comfort zone and lovingly saw to it that Jesus received a proper burial after his death on the cross, an act of devotion for which he and Joseph will always be remembered.

Saul of Tarsus
Paul the apostle
The final person I would like to mention is a man named Saul of Tarsus (Turkey). He was a very devout Jew from the party of the Pharisees, which held to the strictest observance of the Law of Moses. He described himself as being "circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless." (Php 3:5-6). In his defense before a crowd of Jews in Jerusalem who had tried to kill him, he said, "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today." (Act 22:3)

Prior to coming to know Jesus, he was actually going around persecuting Christians, trying to get them to deny Christ. He said, "I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren, and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished." (Act 22:4-5)

But one day that all changed when the resurrected Lord Jesus appeared to him personally in a blinding light and spoke to him. He described it like this: "But it happened that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me, and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?' And I answered, 'Who are You, Lord?' And He said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.'" (Act 22:6-8)

That must have come as quite a shock to him to know that this Jesus of Nazareth, whom he thought was dead, was actually alive and well, and that he was Lord. Moreover, it must have also surprised him to suddenly realize that as he had been persecuting the followers of Jesus, he was actually persecuting the Lord Himself. His companions around him watched the scene unfold. "And those who were with me saw the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me. And I said, 'What shall I do, Lord?' And the Lord said to me, 'Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.'" (Act 22:9-10)

Yet Saul still had one problem -- he remained blinded by the light. "But since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me and came into Damascus. A certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law, and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing near said to me, 'Brother Saul, receive your sight!' And at that very time I looked up at him. And he said, 'The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will and to see the Righteous One and to hear an utterance from His mouth. For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.'" (Act 22:11-16).

That was the beginning of his relationship with the risen Lord, and he immediately began preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, spreading the gospel throughout the entire known world of his day. He later went on to become known as Paul the apostle, and as he preached, he healed the sick, raised the dead, and performed miracles in Jesus' name. "God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out." (Act 19:11-12)

Paul lived a life of complete devotion and service to Christ. He said, "But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God." (Act 20:24). God used him to write half of the New Testament Scriptures. In fact, thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were written by him. And to this day those books are still transforming lives around the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul suffered a lot for his faith in Christ, including arrests, beatings, floggings, imprisonment, false accusations, hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, shipwreck, assassination attempts, betrayal, and desertion by his companions. This is further evidence that his faith was genuine. Otherwise there would be no reason for him to convert to Christianity only to experience a life of suffering like that.

Since Paul did not know Jesus personally during the Lord's earthly ministry, the only way that Paul could have gone from merely having religion to having a relationship with the Lord after the crucifixion of Christ was that He had risen from the dead and was alive. The fact that Jesus appeared to him and spoke to him, and the way his life was transformed from a persecutor of Christians to a preacher of the gospel, and the supernatural signs and wonders that marked his ministry as an apostle, as well as the enduring impact his writings have had throughout the world for the past two thousand years up to this day, is all evidence that Jesus Christ is no longer dead. He is risen! Hallelujah! He is the Living One who was dead and behold He is alive forever more. Paul the apostle had resurrection power in his life and so can you.

For more about Paul, please read A Personality Profile of the Apostle Paul.

Making it Personal
We've looked at three devoutly religious Jews who went from merely having religion to having a personal relationship with their Messiah, Jesus Christ. What about you? Perhaps you have been in church all your life, but have you ever been born again? Jesus said that you must be born again. Although you may have lived a devoutly religious life, either as a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, or some other religion, actually you are spiritually dead and do not have eternal life until you repent of your sins and put your faith in the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. Have you done that yet? Have you surrendered your life to Him and asked Him to come and live inside your heart -- to take control of your whole life? If not, now is the best time to do so. For you may not have tomorrow. Life is short and tomorrow is uncertain.

In the passage about Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, we have the famous verse, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (Joh 3:16). Believe in Him today, so that you will not perish but have everlasting life. If you don't have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, then you won't see life, because the wrath of God remains on you. "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." (Joh 3:36).

I too, was raised as a religious person in my early life, but did not know Jesus personally, until I turned my life over to Him as a young soldier at age nineteen. He set me free and my whole life changed in a wonderful way (see my testimony). Let me invite you to do the same. You will never regret that you did so. The greatest distance in the world may be the eighteen inches between your head and your heart, which is enough to separate you from God's presence eternally. Don't miss heaven by eighteen inches. Make sure you have a personal relationship with the Lord.

Attribution notice: Most Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible copyright Lockman Foundation. Apostle Paul painting, c.1627 - c.1629 - Jan Lievens. Nicodemus painting by Crijn Hendricksz. Volmaryn, c. 1601-1645. Joseph of Arimathea by Pietro Perugino.

Authors Note: If you enjoyed this article, I invite you to also read You Must Be Born Again, Knowing the LordHaving the Love of God in Your Heart, Baptized with the SpiritSupernatural Power for All Disciples, Resurrection Outworking in UsA Personality Profile of the Apostle Paul, Persecuted or Popular, Faithful Until Death: The Glory of Martyrdom for ChristHaving a Servant's Heart, Unselfish Hearts, and Pleasing the Lord. More articles like this may be found on the Home Page of this blog. You can also find my complete collection of blogs at Writing for the Master.

Do You Want to Know Him?
If you want to know Jesus personally, you can. It all begins when you repent and believe in Jesus.  Do you know what God's Word, the Bible says?

“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mar 1:14b-15).  He preached that we must repent and believe.

Please see my explanation of this in my post called "Do You Want to Know Jesus?"

Len Lacroix is the founder of Doulos Missions International.  He was based in Eastern Europe for four years, making disciples, as well as helping leaders to be more effective at making disciples who multiply, developing leaders who multiply, with the ultimate goal of planting churches that multiply. His ministry is now based in the United States with the same goal of helping fulfill the Great Commission.

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